In this week’s Torah reading, Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt after successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dream as a portent of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Tasked with preparing the country for the lean years, Joseph acquires enough surplus grain during the fat ones to feed the people for the duration of the famine. In what happens next, Jonathan Sacks finds an important insight about economics and freedom:
When the people ran out of money during the lean years, Joseph told them to trade their livestock. When this too ran out, he arranged for them to sell their land to Pharaoh with the sole exception of the land belonging to the priests. The Egyptians were now, in essence, Pharaoh’s serfs, paying him a tax of 20 percent of their produce each year [to rent back the land that they had sold].
This nationalization of livestock, labor, and land meant that power was now concentrated in the hands of Pharaoh, and the people themselves reduced to serfdom. Both of these developments would eventually be used against Joseph’s own people, when a new Pharaoh arose and enslaved the Israelites. It cannot be by accident that the Torah twice uses about the Egyptians the same phrase it will later use about the Israelites: avadim l’faro: they have become “Pharaoh’s slaves” (Genesis 47:19, 25). There is already here a hint that too much economic power in the hands of the state leads to what [the great Anglo-Austrian economist] Friedrich Hayek called “the road to serfdom” and the eclipse of liberty.